A Binational Byway

Israelis and Palestinians today to a great extent face the same situation that Judah Magnes and his friends wanted to solve in another way more than 60 years ago.

"From Brit Shalom to the Ihud: Judah Leib Magnes and the Struggle for a Binational State in Palestine" by Joseph Heller, Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, 427 pages, NIS 110

Gavriel Stern bequeathed to me the smallest book in my library: a 7-by-10 cm., 15-page volume with a blue binding that originally cost 10 Palestine mils. It was published in 1946 by the Central Committee of Hashomer Hatzair Workers' Party in Palestine, and was written by Aharon Cohen. The name of the book is "Why was Fawzi al-Husseini Murdered?" Cohen claims that Al-Husseini was the moving spirit behind a group of Arabs who were in favor of making an agreement with the Zionist movement. They worked with Agudat Ihud (The Union), in which Gavriel Stern was active.

A short time after the 1967 Six-Day War, Stern took me to the A-Tur neighborhood in East Jerusalem, and showed me where Al-Husseini had been murdered. At the time, Stern was a reporter for Al Hamishmar, the daily newspaper of Mapam (the socialist-Zionist United Workers' Party). He had no doubt that Al-Husseini was murdered for being a peace activist. In Hillel Cohen's fascinating book about Arab collaborators ("Shadow Army: Palestinian Collaborators in the Service of Zionism: 1917-1948," published by Ivrit), I read that Al-Husseini may have been killed because he sold land to Jews. Joseph Heller also sends his readers to one of the files in the Zionist Archives containing information that ostensibly confirms that Al- Husseini was a corrupt collaborator, and not worthy of the glory attributed to him by his Jewish interlocutors; perhaps he was a peace-loving corrupt collaborator. Gavriel Stern had great respect for him.

Stern, who was born in Germany, was one of the young men who, in the 1940s, surrounded Judah Leib Magnes, the American-born president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who believed that peace in Palestine was dependent on the Jews and the Arabs living there together, on the basis of complete equality, in one state, or in some kind of federal framework. Magnes was opposed to the partition of the land, as well as to the creation of a Jewish majority. He tried to promote his ideas as though he were a statesman. Joseph Heller records this attempt: He begins in the mid-1920s and ends with Magnes' death in 1948, about half a year after the establishment of the state.

There are books that don't immediately receive the attention they deserve. This book, in Hebrew, is one of them. Heller is not a journalist with an easy writing style; he is a professor at the Hebrew University, the author of the most important study of the history of the Lehi (a Hebrew acronym for Fighters for the Freedom of Israel, a pre-state, right-wing underground group), "The Stern Gang: Ideology, Politics and Terror, 1949-1948." I wouldn't recommend taking his new book along on a vacation to Antalya, but it is very worthwhile reading, because the ideas of J.L. Magnes and his friends are still relevant.

Heller attributes great importance to the differences between Brit Shalom, which was established in the 1920s, and Agudat Ihud, which was established in the 1940s; at the same time, he finds it important to emphasize that as opposed to his wife, Magnes was not a member of Brit Shalom, but only a sympathizer. On the other hand, he identified completely with Agudat Ihud. The Brit and the Ihud gave rise to similar organizations, including the League for Arab-Jewish Rapprochement and Cooperation.

Historical curiosity

Heller tells their story in detail, but more interesting than their organizational structure and the internal tensions within them, is the revelation in his book that at no point did any of these organizations number more than 100 members. That would seem to be the end of the story. Indeed it is doubtful whether it is worth more than a footnote: A few Jews in Mandatory Palestine proposed an alternative to Zionist policy, and remained almost alone with their ideas. Ironically, they couldn't find a genuine partner among the Arabs, either. In other words - a historical curiosity.

It isn't difficult to understand why they failed: Magnes suggested to both the Jews and the Arabs that they completely relinquish national independence, even before they had achieved it. Nations don't tend to give up their national identity, as one can see to this day, even in united Europe. Therefore, both Jews and Arabs rejected Magnes' proposals as well. That's the whole story.

But the binational idea deserves more than the 400 pages of this book, because in spite of its marginal nature, the subject refuses to disappear from public discourse, and like its opposite - the idea of "transfer" - it emerges repeatedly, both in Israel and among the Palestinians, in almost every fundamental discussion about the future of the relations between them. That is happening, of course, because Israelis and Palestinians have not yet succeeded in organizing their relations, and to a great extent are facing the same situation that Magnes and his friends wanted to solve in another way.

One of the fascinating questions is whether they can be considered Zionists. They wanted to belong to Jewish society in Palestine. They wanted that very much. Apart from peace itself, there was nothing they wanted more. For that purpose they resorted to rather complex ideological acrobatics: The Zionist movement, they said, basing themselves on Ahad Ha'am (Asher Ginsberg, the foremost advocate of cultural Zionism), doesn't have a monopoly on Jewish nationalism. As liberal religious people, they believed that Jewish national identity is not conditional on the Jews dispossessing the Arabs. Heller believes that this is a legitimate approach, and even acknowledges its morality, but doesn't tend to give it a place in the Zionist world, in my opinion rightfully: Anyone who doesn't believe in a Jewish majority is not a Zionist - at least not according to the accepted Israeli definition of Zionism.

At the same time, it is interesting to learn about the truly pathetic attempts made by the members of Brit Shalom and Ihud to turn their ideas in political reality. Magnes conducted political negotiations, at whose height he spoke with the U.S. secretary of state. Heller has also done a good job of recording the attitude of the Zionist establishment toward Magnes. On the one hand, they considered him a traitor; on the other, they acknowledged his status as a person of morals and conscience, and wanted - oh, how they wanted - to be as righteous and good and moral as he. In conversations between Magnes and Ben-Gurion, for example, Ben-Gurion talked philosophy and Magnes talked politics.

It wasn't easy for them. The more established the Zionism presence became in Palestine, the more the conflict with the Arabs intensified, the harder it became for them. In the wake of the Holocaust, they faced an almost impossible dilemma. The 1947 UN General Assembly decision to adopt the Partition Plan, the 1948 War of Independence, and the flight and expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Arabs, shattered everything. They also regretted the uprooting of the Jews in Arab countries. Indeed, one gets the impression that maybe they didn't want them in Israel, because their arrival signaled the end of the European dream they had nurtured. Their tragedy is portrayed in Heller's book as the tragedy of all the inhabitants of this land, Jews as well as Arabs.

Moral authority

At the 1968 graduating ceremony of the joint Command and Staff College, Moshe Dayan, who was the defense minister at the time, chose to give a long historical lecture about the worldview of Arthur Ruppin, one of the founders of Brit Shalom, and one of the statements he cited was the following: "What we can get from the Arabs we don't need, and what we need we won't be able to get." In the lecture, Dayan remarked that Ruppin's words had a "contemporary ring." He could have said the same thing on his own, without resorting to Ruppin; apparently even Dayan acknowledged the moral authority of the members of Brit Shalom.

Heller also acknowledges that Magnes and his friends spoke as moral people, and that is a basis for arguing with him: Who decided that the supra-national, pacifist morality of Magnes is more moral than Zionist-nationalist morality? Heller doesn't discuss that. He doesn't agree with Magnes and his friends, but he apparently believes, and rightfully so, that it isn't worthwhile to invest such great research efforts in them only to prove that they were wrong.

Magnes, Martin Buber, Ernst Simon, Gavriel Stern and others are portrayed in this book as people who are interesting to know, one reason being that their worldview was an inseparable part of their personalities. Before coming to Palestine, Magnes, for example, was involved in mediating among several of the legendary figures of the New York underworld - many of them Jews - and the city's police. Maybe he brought with him the ability, the talent and the desire to serve as a bridge between opposing camps. Perhaps that was relevant in the formulation of his ideas regarding the conflict between Jews and Arabs. Heller ignores that, just as he mentions only incidentally the great drama of the murder of Al-Husseini. In Gavriel Stern's life it was a formative event.

Stern once told me about another event that shaped his worldview. It was during the War of Independence. He was posted as a soldier at the Notre Dame monastery on the seam line between the two parts of Jerusalem. At a certain moment, he remained alone in the huge building; it was frightening. He roamed the length of the corridors, and suddenly found himself facing a man armed with a rifle. An enemy. Stern lifted his rifle, the man opposite him lifted his. Stern knew: The first to pull the trigger would live, the other would die. Stern fired. During the following seconds, he was covered with a hail of glass fragments. It was a big mirror. Stern had fired at himself. He never fired again.

He also bequeathed to me "Dissenter in Zion: From the Writings of Judah Magnes," by Columbia University historian Arthur Goren; Heller often refers to the book. When I took it off the shelf this week, a yellowing envelope fell out of it; it was addressed to Stern and sent to him by Prof. Ernst Simon, with a poem in German written by the professor and dedicated to Magnes. The heads of Brit Shalom and Agudat Ihud often clarified their ideas and their interpersonal relationships in writing. A large percentage of the letters they exchanged traveled only from one side of the street to the other, at most from one neighborhood to another, because most of them lived in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Rehavia or Talbieh. They often wrote in German; almost all of them thought in German. Stern was one of the few among them who knew Arabic.

Alek D. Epstein of the Hebrew University has written about the involvement of Israeli intellectuals in the struggle for peace; Mordechai Bar-On has written about the history of the Israeli peace movement. Here are two possible chapters in a book that has yet to be written about the social and cultural history of Rehavia.

Ideas, not people

But Heller has written only about ideas, not about people. It turns out that at the Hebrew University they still study "intellectual history." That's a shame, in my opinion. Not because I'm dying to hear a piece of gossip from 1940s' Rehavia, or to be more precise, not only because of that (beneath the respectability, there were quite a few evil instincts fermenting among the professors in Rehavia).

But I want, for example, to understand how it happened that people who were so sedate in their ideas, law-abiding, moderate, some of them very conservative and religious, adopted ideas that most other people considered so radical, subversive, even traitorous. Heller says that Magnes and his friends tended to describe themselves as the disciples of Isaiah rather than of Jeremiah. Perhaps they failed to disseminate their ideas because they were outsiders; the answer requires at least some biography, perhaps even some psychology.

Basically, Heller has recorded a conflict between pessimists and optimists. The Zionists didn't believe in the possibility that the Arabs would accept them, and therefore reached the conclusion that prevails until today: Only Israel's power of deterrence will convince the Arabs to let it exist. That is also what Dayan said in his lecture. But if Zionism prevents a peaceful future - perhaps it isn't worth the price. Some of those espousing the binational idea did in fact believe that, writes Heller, and left the country, or didn't settle here in the first place.

Today it's easier to leave; the Canadian embassy in Tel Aviv offers good emigration programs. In order for young people to want to build their lives in Israel, they must first of all believe in the possibility that there will be peace. The belief in coexistence and in peace reflects an optimistic approach to life; perhaps it is no coincidence that even today, it is adopted mainly by people who have a good life overall - like the people who established Peace Now and read Haaretz.

When East Jerusalem was captured, Gavriel Stern was blissfully happy; for a long time, I didn't properly understand that. Why did the occupation make him so happy, this good man of peace, who loved God and people, I wondered. Stern was caught up in the illusion that eliminating the border between Jews and Arabs would lead them to live with one another in peace, as he had believed before the War of Independence. A cruel paradox has brought about a situation in which the Israeli peace movement was forced to adopt the principle of separation, including the fence, whereas people who want to remove the Arabs from the country settled among the Arabs.

Both these groups consider their activities an expression of true Zionism. Stern might have rejected the disengagement plan of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the dismantling of the settlements, always hoping for coexistence. He was against barriers, like the handful of people who even today favor a binational future. They are not Zionists; perhaps Zionism requires a new definition. Heller is not in favor of that, but his book is likely to be instrumental in bringing it about.